Category Archives: Religion

Myanmar’s General Election Will Put Its New Order to the Test

First published in Newsweek US, 20 October 2015 – print edition Oct 30

Kyaw Wanna Soe, a 40-something newspaper distributor in downtown Yangon, Myanmar, was twitching anxiously. While speaking, he wiped his brow and shifted in his chair. It was summer in Yangon, and that unholy union of heat and moisture was reaching a suffocating climax.

It was unclear whether his obvious discomfort was a result of the soaring temperatures or provoked by contemplation of his country’s immediate future. Asked what ambitions he harbored for Myanmar’s upcoming general elections, he meekly responded, “I just hope they happen without any problems.

“There are a lot of tensions right now,” he continued, pointing to front-page images of protesting students. “So if something goes wrong…” His voice trailed off while he surveyed the maze of newspapers littering his shop floor. “I’m worried for my business.”
While many are optimistic about the November 8 election, others are skeptical, worrying that if there are problems with the election, it could undermine the progress made by Myanmar thus far. Such skepticism was fueled by contradictory reports this month from the Union Election Commission—first that the vote would be postponed, then, 12 hours later, that it would go ahead.

For people like Kyaw Wanna Soe, incidents like these are reminiscent of the ruling elite’s capricious past, particularly the 1990 general election. It was considered the country’s last relatively free and fair one, when the newly formed National League for Democracy (NLD) party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won 80 percent of the seats in the parliament. In response, the ruling military regime annulled the results, and many of the opposition candidates went into hiding. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, and the military retained its grip on society for many more years.

For half a century after the military coup in 1962, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, stagnated under a dictatorial and antagonistic policy called “the Burmese Way to Socialism.” It has been only five years since the country began making serious changes, easing up on the hermetic seal that kept it isolated and embracing both regional neighbors and the international community.

President Barack Obama hailed the gradual opening as a diplomatic coup, the result of a “carrot and stick” U.S. policy of dropping or imposing sanctions as Myanmar’s internal situation evolved. In November 2012, Obama became the first U.S. president to visit the country, applauding the start of its “dramatic transition.”
Now Myanmar has reached another milestone, in the form of what the government promises will be a free and fair general election. In reality, this will be a test of whether the country moves closer to democracy or remains a military kleptocracy characterized by cronyism.

This time, there are several parties running for the parliament’s upper and lower houses, but most of the attention is focused on the two major ones: the NLD, headed by Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, and the incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), led by President Thein Sein.

“It’s certainly important, and it’s shaping up to be the fairest and most inclusive [general election] since 1990,” says David Mathieson, the senior researcher with Human Rights Watch in Yangon. “But,” he adds, “there are still major caveats that need to be factored in.”

For Mathieson, the lack of reform of the heavily criticized constitution of 2008 is one such failure. It was drafted by the old military junta and passed in the immediate aftermath of the deadly Cyclone Nargis. One of the most contentious points lies in Article 436, which requires a supermajority of more than 75 percent of parliamentary votes to amend the constitution. This point, combined with the fact that a quarter of the total seats are guaranteed to the military, means that the generals enjoy a de facto veto over any constitutional changes.

“I would call this is a 75 percent election, because 25 percent of the seats are guaranteed to the military,” Mathieson says. “They have stated they are the guardian of the constitution…. They have made it very clear they won’t countenance any changes.”

One of the more dramatic signs of that came in August when the USDP ousted party chairman and presidential hopeful Shwe Mann in a surprise overnight move. He had disagreed with other party members over a number of issues, including his willingness for constitutional change.

Another controversial article of the constitution bars anyone with a foreign spouse or child from holding the highest office. Suu Kyi’s late husband was a British citizen, as are her children, and critics interpreted that article as tailored to exclude her.

In spite of the constitutional barrier, Suu Kyi sounds confident. At a campaign rally just north of Yangon, she told the crowd, “Make no mistake: Whoever the president is, I will be the leader of the NLD government.”

There is another big factor weighing against a free and fair election: the many citizens who cannot vote.

There are bureaucratic problems, and the Union Election Commission—which oversees registration, campaigning and polling—is badly stretched, says Myat Thu, director of the Yangon School of Political Science. “I’ve been told by people that names are being repeated [on voting rosters], while others are missing. Sometimes a single name appears five times,” he says.

Meanwhile, several pockets along Myanmar’s border regions are still subject to violence that is part of a conflict between the military and a plethora of ethnic armed groups, now in its 67th year. The result has been the displacement of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of the country’s citizenry, either into camps or as refugees. Some estimate at least 110,000 refugees have fled the country in the past 20 years.

A much-touted two-year-long attempt to reach a nationwide cease-fire has just ended in disappointment, with only eight of the 15 invited groups willing to sign with the government. The various conflicts mean that nearly 600 village districts nationwide will have their voting canceled. “There are far more active conflict areas and displaced people now than in 2010. That should be a sobering assessment,” Mathieson says.

Meanwhile, in western Myanmar, the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group, has raised doubts over the sincerity of the government’s transition. Myanmar does not consider the Rohingya citizens, referring to them as Bangladeshis and revoking many of their rights. This has left some 140,000 people displaced and wholly disenfranchised. Earlier this year, there was a surge in the numbers of Rohingya fleeing to neighboring countries, many of them risking their lives on rickety boats run by smugglers. Obama, while praising the country’s “courageous process” of political reform, warned that “Myanmar won’t succeed if the Muslim population is oppressed.”

Myanmar’s political elites, including Suu Kyi, were noticeably silent about the crisis, a sign that sympathy with the Rohingya is not politically expedient in Myanmar. Now the Rohingya face more discrimination than ever, partly as a reflexive response to condemnation from abroad, and partly thanks to the rise of Buddhist nationalist groups like the Association for Protection of Race and Religion, known locally by the Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha.

The Ma Ba Tha, led by hard-line monks, has stoked sectarian tensions, particularly toward the Muslim minorities in this overwhelmingly Buddhist country. Last year, it proposed four so-called “protection of race and religion laws” condemning Muslims that were swiftly pushed through the parliament. They garnered huge support across the electorate.

“My view is that [the government has] simply just stood back, allowed [the Ma Ba Tha’s rise] to happen and are now utilizing that sentiment for themselves,” says Mathieson.

In recent months, state media have carried numerous reports of senior government officials making offerings to senior monks. Ma Ba Tha figures have praised government officials for the speedy enactment of the new race and religion laws, while explicitly calling on the movement’s supporters not to vote for the NLD.

Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest, has rejected such rhetoric mixing religion and politics as unconstitutional. She told supporters she was focused on reconciliation and building a bright future based on democracy. “The past should be something from which to take lessons,” she said, “not something that ties us to anger and grudges.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles, elections, Politics, Religion, Rights

An hour long radio documentary from Public Radio International’s America Abroad Media on Burma in the buildup to the elections later this year.  First broadcast on Tuesday 7th April with my contribution starting at 27 mins.

Leave a comment

April 9, 2015 · 11:15

Muslim Brotherhood’s ‘Day of Anger’ Ends with Scores Dead


An edited version of this story was published on VICE US

After more than 600 people were killed nationwide on Wednesday 14th August, the inevitable “Day of Anger” was called for by the Muslim Brotherhood.  Aggrieved by the massacre of its followers following the crackdown on its 6-week-old sit-ins in Rabba Al Adawiya and Nahda areas, they organised over 20 marches to converge on central Cairo’s Ramses Square as a show of defiance to the military ‘coup’ and its massacres against their supporters.

Egyptian Armed Forces prepared for the protests by upping their security presence.  Armoured Personnel Carriers set up positions all around downtown Cairo.  Tahrir Square, the iconic ‘heart’ of the 2011 revolution had no less than two APCs at each of the streets leading into and out of the square – an unthinkable scenario not two months ago.  The day before the protests were due, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim officially permitted the use of live ammunition by Central Security Forces (CSF) were anyone to attack Governmental buildings.

The scene was set for an ineluctable extension of the bloodshed that Egypt has experienced since Mohamed Morsi’s deposition – at the time of writing, at least 100 people have lost their lives from today’s violence alone.

The protest in Ramses remained peaceful for all of an hour – highlighting the tinderbox like make-up of the political divergence.  Generally accepted reports emerged of armed men attacking the nearby Asbakeya Police Station, thus triggering the violence.  Pro-Muslim Brotherhood protest members staunchly deny any such act and claim that the police started firing without provocation.

“I have been here since the start, I tell you nobody did anything, they [the police] just attacked us…if anyone is shooting it is either police or counter-revolutionary thugs” claimed Mohamed Ali, a lifelong Muslim Brotherhood member.

The palpable change in atmosphere as one neared Ramses Square brought about a sickening anticipation.  The questionable gunshots of before were now very real and very loud.  A metronomic crack of a rifle rings out every 30 seconds or so, interrupting the drumming of the helicopters circling overhead.  Every now and again, a short burst of heavy automatic fire can be heard.  It’s impossible to know which direction the shooting was coming from, or who was doing it, but a group of men start anxiously pointing to a nearby bridge where a couple of APCs are parked.  Still 200 metres from the Square, people were hugging the walls, crowding together behind the corners of buildings for cover.

“Do you see us?” cried Mohamed Ali, “Do you see any weapons?  We are peaceful and they are killing us, these dogs”.  A man across the streets starts a chant of “The Interior Ministry are thugs” and everyone echoes his sentiment with full voice.

Despite not seeing any firearms myself, weapons were apparent and were being used by some.  Egyptian State TV widely broadcast Brotherhood members firing assault weapons on 15 May bridge during a march towards Ramses Square.  Later, the State TV showed the on-going clashes under the running banner “Egypt Fighting Terrorism” apparently refusing to appreciate the existence of any nuance in the chaos.

Not five minutes after speaking to Mohamed Ali I stumbled across two men on the periphery of the Square who were assembling Molotov cocktails from two leftover crates filled with empty, glass, coke bottles, one carefully placing pre-cut cloth into each of the bottles while the other carefully inspected each one.  They reprimanded me as I tried to take a photo and pointed instead towards the police. “Take a photo of them, they’re the killers”.

The closer you were to the square the faster people moved, shadowing the buildings for cover.  A 63-year-old retired Engineer approached asking to borrow my pen.  On his left forearm he began to write a phone number and above it, his name ‘Wael’.  “It’s my family’s number, just in case I am killed,” he explained to me.  “I am not a supporter of Mohamed Morsi you must understand, I am just anti-army and anti-coup.  I was there in Rabaa when they killed everyone, how can anyone support such a regime after seeing that?”

Just past Al Ahmar hospital, about 50 metres south of Ramses Square the gunshots became so loud they sounded like they were being fired from next to me.  After one such bang, a man some 10 metres in front of me stumbled.  A 50p-sized hole had appeared in his upper left arm, blood squirting out.  After two steps, he fell over and in less than 30 seconds had been scooped up; his wound bandaged and he was placed on a scooter that took him to another hospital.

Immediately, people rushed to the locked gates of the Al Ahmar hospital.  “We are dying here!” They yelled to the doctors standing inside.  One man started shaking the gates so violently others had to restrain him, but not before more gunshots were heard, sending the crowd running for better cover.

Across the country violent clashes had endured, acceding to the age-old maxim that ‘violence begets violence’ and questioning the Armed Forces reasoning, that cracking down on the sit-ins was the first step to stability and security.  With every death, another martyr is made and the divide between the Armed Forces and the Muslim Brotherhood grows.  At this pace, it is beginning to seem impossible that a peaceful reconciliation can be made anytime soon.

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles, Politics, Religion, Uncategorized

The Altar Lottery: Papal Elections in Egypt and the Ramifications on Constitutional Diplomacy

The 4th November marked the culmination in a rather bizarre and controversial process that resulted in Bishop Tawadros being ordained Pope Tawadros II, the 118th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark, thus becoming the leader of the largest Christian community in the Middle East.  An estimated 10% of Egypt’s population are Coptic Christians (around 8 million people) making them the largest single minority in Egypt’s Muslim majority country.

The process for selecting a new pope began immediately after the death of Pope Shenouda III in March 2011.  The position of locum tenens was given to Archbishop Pachomios, who has overseen the election process as guided by the 1957 bylaws, which regulate the papal election.  Ironically, one of the first challenges facing the newly appointed Pope is in reforming these controversial regulations.

The selection regulations meant that only 2417 Copts were eligible in voting for their preferred nominees.  The enfranchised were drawn from “notable” Coptic laymen, Coptic public officials and local councillors, and Coptic Bishops and Archbishops.  Those against the bylaws point to its exclusivity and the perceived elitism of its regulations.  This system of election has only been employed 10 times since having first been introduced in the 8th century and there are accusations that it has no spiritual or legal basis with some calling for it to be discarded altogether.

The process started with a committee mandated with creating a shortlist of 17 candidates to be Shenouda’s successor.  A papal nominations committee then whittled the group down to 5 candidates, which included 2 bishops and 3 monks.  The penultimate round included the enfranchised group casting their ballots to select the 3 that they wanted to see in the final round.

The top three finalists included: Bishop Raphael, 54, an auxiliary Bishop of central Cairo who is known for having good relations with young Copts; Bishop Tawadros, 60, Auxiliary Bishop for Northern Beheira Governorate, Auxiliary to Archbishop Pachomios and known for having good relations with Islamists; and Father Rafael Ava Mina, 70, a monk at St. Mina Monastery, author of several religious books and once deacon for the 116th Pope, Kyrillos VI.

Finally, yesterday morning after the 8am mass, this odd and contentious election process reached its zenith as a blindfolded Coptic child put his hand into a bowl containing the three candidate’s names and pulled out the small box with Bishop Tawadros’ name in it.  Those in favour of this rather unconventional practice claim that this ensures that the selection is in God’s hands.

A member of the Holy Synod, Tawadros was born in 1952 and studied pharmaceutical sciences at Alexandria University and was ordained Bishop in 1997 by the Late Pope Shenouda III.  His broad experience and managerial skills, he used to run a medicine factory, will be useful assets in helping him confront the challenges ahead.

Within the Church itself he has issues to contest with.  Bishop Raphael spoke of how the new pope must devote himself to reorganising the Church from within and draw in the alienated and disillusioned Coptic youth that have moved away from the Church.  Moreover, there is the issue of getting state approval in amending the controversial 1957 papal election bylaws as well as the 1938 bylaws, which govern the rules of divorce and remarriage.

Outside of the Church, the issues at stake are arguably larger.  The Egypt Independent newspaper ran an article a week ago suggesting a ‘depoliticising’ of the Church, but with the volatile arena that he is stepping into, it seems that the question is not whether Pope Tawadros II will be involved in the politics, but to what degree he will be involved.

A month ago a 1-year anniversary march took place remembering the Maspero massacre where 27 people, mostly Copts, were killed during a peaceful protest, which was itself in reaction to the demolition of a Church in Upper Egypt.

A week later, there were large clashes in Tahrir Square, in part driven by the anger at the unrepresentative make-up of the Constitutional Assembly; the seculars, women and Copts all claiming little representation in it’s members.  Around the same time the Constitutional Assembly released it’s draft constitution, which has received criticism from across the board.

Human Right’s Watch asked for the constitution to make some serious changes, saying that it “falls far short of international law on women’s and children’s rights, freedom of religion and expression, and, surprisingly, torture and trafficking”.

The Commercial Workers’ Syndicate released a joint statement condemning the draft for omitting their 50% seat quota in Parliament calling it a “violation of rights”.

With the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the election of the country’s first Islamist President it’s understandable that some Copts would be worried about their future – especially how it will be enshrined in the constitution.  This isn’t to say that they will be targeted or alienated, but some of the constitutional articles lay grounds for worry.

Article 2 says, rather vaguely, that, “the principles of Islamic Sharia are the main source of legislation”.  The exact application of this is predicated on the hermeneutic advice from Al-Azhar’s senior scholars with regards to the Sharia (as enshrined in Article 4), as well as the judiciary, legislative and executive bodies in power at the time.  Due to its ill-defined wording, one can safely say that the future of Egypt and its dealings with the Coptic Christians (as well as all the other minorities, I might add) is dependent on whoever seizes the upper hand in its interpretation and application.

Which brings us back to the role of the newly appointed.  Pope Tawadros II was known as an Islamist-friendly, peace-seeking Bishop, but now that he is head of his Church, the consequence of his rhetoric and promise of his actions – be they more or less politically inclined – is of the utmost importance to the largest minority in Egypt.

1 Comment

Filed under Religion